The contents of chicken nuggets are never far from controversy, but their crunchy outsides are no strangers to criticism, as well. Today, processors are reworking their batter and breading formulas to become healthier: gluten-free, natural, flavorful and more resistant to freezing temperatures.

Batters and breadings provide flavor, texture and crunch to any number of chicken entrees, nuggets, shrimp, fish sticks and filets. Increasingly, consumers are requesting that they also be gluten-free. Some poultry processors are using puffed cereal options, for example, that mimic the standard wheat-based crumbs, and others are in development.

“The clean-up for gluten-free products is more challenging,” says Darrel Suderman, Ph.D., food industry technology and business consultant at Food Technical Consulting, based in Denver, as grain-processing facilities have to guard against cross-contamination from gluten-containing ingredients.

The lure of the coveted health and wellness halo comes into play in the breading and batters market, certainly, which is why organic flavors are also joining gluten-free and low-fat ingredients.

Quick service restaurants are also considering working toward offering USDA- certified, all-natural breaded items. To achieve these goals, companies would have to mimic the texture and taste of the current items without using chemical leavening agents, modified starches and further processed flavoring components.

In addition, they would have to find a natural replacement for the phosphates used in marinades, which provide flavor to proteins before being coated with breading or batters. If this artificial additive were removed, then a natural ingredient like dried plums would be used instead to prevent any moisture from the marinade migrating into the breaded product coating, which would certainly affect the texture and fry color — let alone its taste.

Sweet potato flour, which has three times the dietary fiber of a typical flour, is increasingly considered as an ingredient in batters and breading. Sweet potato flour has been used as an alternative ingredient in Asian countries for fried chicken and fish, because it absorbs water well and as a result prevents water loss. Also, this super food is packed with vitamins A and C, protein and various minerals.

Suderman is working on developing new breadcrumbs from sourdough, cheese and multi-grain breads to offer more flavor. “There is a huge opportunity to give customers a point of differentiation and demonstrate product leadership in the field,” he says.

Battling the elements

It can be hard to achieve new, bold flavor profiles within coated items as high thermal processing diminishes their flavor impact and many flavor components are not heat stable. Sometimes the flavor actually comes from marinating the meats instead. If consumers want more natural ingredients, it will be challenging to offer stronge, heat stable coating systems.

Challenges also exist with keeping coatings in place while they are frozen and re-heated. Frozen coated products can be stored for weeks. But if moisture migrates from the meat to the breaded coating during this time, the outside texture will become soft and chewy after cooking. Companies that can prevent this from happening will have microwaveable and bake back items that taste closer to their freshly fried versions.

The primary ingredient for adhesive properties is starches and gums, Suderman says.

“Using starches and gums as barriers to prevent oil pick up in the frying process is critical,” he says. “Technology that causes oil reduction during the frying process is just now getting rolled out in the United States.”

Another new area emerging in breading and batters is pre-blended gums and starches, says Suderman.

“One opportunity it addresses is how the starch used in bread crumbs can affect structure and unique shapes,” he says. Manipulating bread structure can lead to exciting new product characteristics.

“When we think of adding starch and gum ingredients to breaded and battered products, the goal is to address their texture and crispiness,” Suderman says. “People are attracted to the crispiness of potato chips and crackers, and that is the main driver for breaded products, as well.”  NP